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'Don't Stop Believin': A documentary follows Journey's new lead singer

'Don't Stop Believin': Arnel Pineda was homeless and sang rock covers until he became the new Journey front man.

By Erin EssenmacherThe Film Panel Notetaker / June 29, 2012

Journey found Arnel Pineda (far left) through a video on YouTube.

Courtesy of John Pop Plewell

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Silverdocs kicked off its 10th annual film festival Monday night with a special screening of Ramona Diaz’s “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.”

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As festival director Skye Sitney said when introducing the film, it’s one of those stories that “if it were a fictional film, you’d throw up your hands halfway through at how improbable the whole thing is.”

And she’s right. Aside from the fact that it’s chock full of Journey’s ridiculously addicting, rock anthem music, the beauty of the story is that Steven Spielberg couldn’t have scripted the film better if he tried.

It goes something like this: poor kid from the Philippines loses his mom and ends up homeless on the streets of Manila. To support himself, he channels his amazing vocal talent into a gig in a local band. They survive playing covers of American bands like Bon Jovi and Journey. The kid grows up, keeps singing, battles drug and alcohol abuse and tries to launch a solo career that goes nowhere. By the time he turns 40, he’s so despondent that he’s ready to give up on music altogether. Just as he’s deciding to pack it in, he gets an email from the states – it’s Neal Schon from Journey. The band is desperately searching for the perfect new front man and they’ve stumbled across video of the kid on YouTube singing Journey covers. They’re blown away. Can he come to the US to audition in person?

Thus begins the wildly implausible and totally enthralling story of how Arnel Pineda – former street kid from Manila – became the new Steve Perry, helped Journey score their first platinum album ever, and now travels around the world playing to sold out stadium crowds.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have a soft spot for Journey about a mile wide (and not just because they have best musical shout out to the Motor City in all of rock and roll). So, as a Journey fan and the daughter of native Detroiters who’s a sucker for a good Cinderella story, the film bordered on a religious experience.

As a filmmaker who’s constantly working to hone my own craft, it was about 20 minutes too long and lacked a clear narrative arc, especially when it came to Diaz’s coverage of the band’s history and own trajectory.  And whatever HAPPENED to Steve Perry, anyway?  The question looms large and never really gets answered. That said, Arnel and his story are thoroughly riveting, the band is actually refreshingly humble and easy to connect with, and watching the transformation and rebirth of both Journey and the kid from Manila is a pretty powerful experience.

There are so many moments in the film that are documentary gold, but the final concert scene where native son made good comes home, complete with close-up on wife wiping away tears, holding baby as she watches her husband perform for tens of thousands of adoring, screaming fans as the wind whips her hair was straight out of Hollywood.  It’s like you’re pulling so hard for Pineda that you’re pulling for Diaz, too, even when the film falls short. All in all, it’s a story that could only happen in America, covered in pixie dust.  Well shot and totally worth seeing.

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